Home > The Lean Post> TPS Fundamentals in a Knowledge Work Environment
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

TPS Fundamentals in a Knowledge Work Environment

by Cameron Ford
March 1, 2016

TPS Fundamentals in a Knowledge Work Environment

by Cameron Ford
March 1, 2016 | Comments (2)

We try to practice what we preach at LEI, but like at any workplace, the clutter builds up over time and starts to disrupt the workflow. That was what led a group of us employees to stay late on a Friday night and empty out, clean and reorganize our storage room. It took a while, but eventually the scene went from this…


…to this.


One of my favorite improvements we made was the new placement of our shipping supplies. Previously our envelopes, tape, boxes and postage machine were scattered in several different places all around the room. 

It took many steps and a whole lot of time to get together everything we needed to send even the simplest package. Now we’ve turned it into what people are starting to call “the Mail Corner” – a work cell with everything needed to send a parcel arranged logically in one corner of the room. 

This new layout conforms with one of the original principles of the Toyota Production System – eliminating waste of movement. Although it first came into being to help assembly line workers build cars, there’s no reason why it can’t be used in knowledge work. This is one of our most-asked questions here at LEI, and our answer is always the same – regardless of what they were originally designed for, TPS practices have a huge impact in knowledge work too.

There are countless aspects of TPS that can be applied to knowledge work, but let’s focus on just one for now – the elimination of waste.

On the manufacturing floor, some waste is easy to see; like say, walking away from the assembly line to retrieve a part and then walking back to attach it. Feet in motion carry the entire body away from the work. Some waste is harder to see, like bending down to drive a screw. The feet remain stationary yet unnecessary – and more importantly, uncomfortable – motion moves the body to reach the work.

Then you have waste that is very hard to see – maybe fumbling for a small part such as a screw. The feet and joints are calm, while the hand struggles to position the part in the correct orientation to start the work. Finally, there’s also waste that is impossible to see, like picking parts while recalling their numbers 45BLK, 6734B, and 89NB2. Memory and recall are required simply to start the work. 

While your job may not require assembling parts, these principles of eliminating waste can still help you in your day-to-day tasks in knowledge work. In fact, I’m willing to bet you can find similar types of waste in your office/desk/cubicle right now. One of TPS’s key remedies to creating the most value added work with effectively using both of your hands. On the manufacturing floor this might involve a worker putting a part in place with his left hand while another simultaneously reaches for the next piece with his right hand. In the office, it involves something similar – making sure that both of your hands are performing work at the same time. 

By TPS principles, effectively using both hands requires three areas of focus:

  1. Location – The objects you use most should be within easy reach so you don’t have to stretch. For example, do you have to stretch your arm to reach your inbox on the other side of your desk, or a book on a high shelf? How many times per day? How much time is wasted fumbling in your drawers for that elusive highlighter, or The Amazing Vanishing Stapler? Or as mentioned above, do you frequently have to leave your desk and walk to get something?
  2. Orientation – The objects need to be positioned correctly so again, minimal stretching, reaching, and moving is needed. How many times have you twisted your wrist to pick up that reference book you keep lying on your desk cover-down? Ever gone home with a sore wrist and wondered what it was from?
  3. Stability – The object should be stable, and not moving around on you or you’ll be losing the use of one of your hands to hold it in place. I have a habit of balancing books in my lap with one hand and typing notes from the book with the other. How much time do you think I’d save if I made a simple, makeshift book stand on my desk – suddenly allowing me to type with TWO hands?

We’ve truly just scratched the surface with using TPS principles in knowledge work. It all speaks to the versatility and universal benefits of lean.

What TPS practices do you use in your office environment? 


For more information on TPS principles and how to use them to identify and eliminate waste in the workplace, register for Jeff Smith’s presummit workshop, The Thinking Production System: Fundamentals of Work, at the 2016 Lean Transformation Summit this March. Attendees of this workshop will participate in several hands-on simulations to practice the principles they learn to ensure knowledge retention through real-world application. Learn more on the Summit webpage.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Search Posts:
Creating Continuous Flow
By Mike Rother and Rick Harris
Lean Thinking, 2nd Edition
By James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones
Was this post... Click all that apply
7 people say YES
10 people say YES
7 people say YES
7 people say YES
2 Comments | Post a Comment
Randy Siever March 01, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I know a stigma exists around the use/impact of computers on the application of Lean principles, but if you want to really "go to where the work is done" for knowledge work, you will have to address how you and your team interact with technology. I consider knowledge work today to be more similar to craft production, where each person's machine and work is considered her/his domain, instead of part of a larger value stream.

Email and file management are two easy areas full of low-hanging fruit that I would recommend adding to what looks like a positive and effective 5S initiative. Keep up the good work!

Reply »

Ed Stafford March 21, 2016

Interesting, and a START I might add! Glad the LEI Office area has started to 'practice what you preach" long overdue....

I feel you may have missed a few things...like Standard Work posted to help keep the mini-Kaizen that way. Also  am sure you need to replenish shipping supplies, but I don't see mention of a Kanban system for reordering.

....also where did let's call it (Red tagged items) go?

Assume to a temporary hold area? With 'rules' to not allow unwanted items to sit for very long without disposition?

Competitive Office is a Powerful tool that must be inplemented and used correctly...with new TS/ISO Standards for 2016 Companies must display how they capture and RETAIN knowledge....make sure your entire office Team starts down that path.

My Thoughts

Ed Stafford (Stafford & Associates) 

Remember, "Whatever you are, be a good one"

Good luck

Reply »

Search Posts:
Creating Continuous Flow
By Mike Rother and Rick Harris
Lean Thinking, 2nd Edition
By James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean